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2014 running backs fantasy preview

8/18/2014 - NFL

Last year, the running back position was a horror show.

In most leagues, 10 rushers were drafted in the first round, and five of them crashed and burned. In addition, as you'll hear over and over this summer, the NFL is now a passing league, so there's a temptation to overreact and ignore your fantasy backfield early in drafts.

But I'm here to tell you: RB is still the key position in fantasy football.

How can I make this claim? Well, let's tackle the "passing league" point first. I can't argue with the statement that quarterbacks throw more than ever. Over the past two seasons, 12 quarterbacks have attempted 600-plus passes in a single campaign. In the entire previous decade, that happened only 13 times. Last year, 16 signal-callers -- also known as half the league -- exceeded 500 attempts. In 2010, that number was nine. (And in 1992, Dan Marino was the only QB over 500.) The 18,136 league-wide passing attempts in '13 were the most ever.

This explains why, in terms of raw fantasy point totals, quarterbacks have so thoroughly dominated the past couple seasons. In that span, 31 QBs have posted top-20 fantasy-point seasons, compared to nine RBs. Only one RB -- Jamaal Charles -- has finished higher than seventh in raw fantasy points. So if raw point totals were all we cared about, you'd be dumb to draft anything other than a QB in your draft's first round.

But if high-volume, top-performing fantasy quarterbacks are everywhere, why should we value them? Last year, the No. 3 QB (Cam Newton) and the No. 12 QB (Ben Roethlisberger) were separated by 2.1 fantasy points per game. On average, Newton was drafted 31st overall, while Big Ben went 101st. Heck, a top performer like Philip Rivers was barely drafted in 10-team leagues.

Meanwhile, running backs are much harder to replace. That's because while most fantasy teams own one or two QBs, they load up on five or six RBs, and sometimes more. They handcuff their studs. They take a flyer on possible future stars. So when Reggie Bush gets hurt, Joique Bell is already owned in most leagues, and therefore Bush's fantasy owners must swim much deeper into the talent pool for reinforcements. The concept of scarcity begs you to draft your running backs early.

Of course, there remains the question of reliability. Sure, maybe in theory it makes sense to select the scarcest position early in your draft, but if first-round RBs are a virtual flip of the coin (as they were in '13), shouldn't we invest instead in the safest QB, WR or TE with loads of upside? I'll address that question in a moment. First let's examine specific players heading into '14.

The elite

Adrian Peterson has missed significant time down the stretch in two of his past three seasons and just passed the 2,000-carry plateau, a mark that doesn't usually bode well for continued RB production. But he's just so great. He's never had a pro season in which he didn't score double-digit touchdowns, and he's finished below 1,400 total yards just once. He's my No. 1 overall pick. ... Over the past three years, LeSean McCoy is second in cumulative fantasy points among all RBs, behind only Adrian Peterson. Chip Kelly's offense goes fast, but don't believe for a second that means it doesn't love to run: The Philadelphia Eagles were fourth in the NFL in rush attempts last year, and first in yards per carry. Remember also that Shady gets to find holes behind the league's best O-line. ... Jamaal Charles is probably a candidate for regression. Fantasy's MVP scored an NFL-best 19 TDs in '13, as his carries decreased but his receptions rocketed under coach Andy Reid. Yardage should continue to be there in spades for J-Mail, but he's not a prototypical goal-line banger, and so his trips to the end zone could slide. But the great thing about owning him is knowing he can take it to the house on any given play. ... Matt Forte has an ideal combo of speed and power, plus a soft pair of receiving hands that's put him in the top 11 in RB receptions in each of his six NFL seasons, including third in '13. The lingering strike against Forte has been his inability to find the end zone, but behind a revamped O-line he scored 12 TDs last season. He's a lock top-five overall selection in redraft leagues. ... Marshawn Lynch is only 28, but he has more carries over the past three seasons than anybody in the NFL. Once known as injury-prone, Beast Mode has been a rock lately, but the history of RBs who average 300 carries per season over three years is a scary one. In the league's foremost run-dominant attack, Lynch will produce another double-digit-TD season if he stays healthy. But will he? ... Eddie Lacy creeps into the "elite" category by virtue of carrying the Green Bay Packers while Aaron Rodgers was injured in '13. A pile driver who also catches it well, Lacy has a chance to consolidate the short-TD duties for one of the league's best offenses, as he doesn't appear to have any serious depth-chart threats.

Not sexy, but they get the job done

Zac Stacy was a tremendous surprise in '13, jumping from fifth-round rookie to fantasy force and scoring eight touchdowns in the season's final 10 games. In my personal RB ranks, I've got Stacy ninth. But it would be a mistake to paint him as one of the league's more dynamic runners. He's a 5-foot-8, 224-pound fire hydrant with some wiggle, but most of his damage in '14 will probably come in the red zone, and on early-down plays where he runs someone over. ... Perhaps I can just pencil Alfred Morris onto the "unsexy" list for the next decade? In two pro seasons, Morris has 20 catches, which also happens to be the number of touchdowns he has scored. He's a pure two-down pounder who'll now be the feature back in a Jay Gruden offense that loves to throw. As long as he's healthy, Morris should threaten double-digit TDs and 1,500 total yards. But he won't break away often, and will ride the pine if and when the Washington Redskins fall behind on the scoreboard. ... It's probably too early in his career to consign Le'Veon Bell to "plodder" status, but it's difficult to ignore that 3.5 yards-per-carry average from his rookie campaign. True, the Pittsburgh Steelers struggled to run-block in '13 -- which isn't Bell's fault -- but I'm not sure I see a huge upgrade in that O-line for this season. The good thing about Bell is that for a 244-pound man, he's nimble and catches the ball well. The bad thing is that he's not always as physical as you'd like as a runner, and it's conceivable that LeGarrette Blount could play the role of TD thief. ... There was a time when Frank Gore was a terrific all-around threat. But Gore hasn't exceeded 28 catches in any of his past three campaigns, and should be viewed mostly as an early-down player, too. He's done great work in that capacity, with at least eight rushing TDs in each of those three seasons, but entering his age-31 season, the San Francisco 49ers have Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and perhaps Marcus Lattimore available to supplement Gore.

Falling down

I still have Doug Martin rated in my top 10, so it's not like I'm completely sour on him. But it seems like a long time since last summer, when my Twitter feed was swarmed with hate mail because I didn't make the Muscle Hamster a top-three overall selection. Last year's Tampa Bay Buccaneers overall disaster made a victim of Martin, who underwhelmed even before a torn labrum in his shoulder ended his season. I'm not freaked out by the Bucs talking up a RB committee this summer, mostly because I try and ignore literally everything coaches say to the media. But it's fair to question whether Martin and his O-line will bounce back. ... I was an advocate of Arian Foster as the No. 2 overall pick last year, and for a while that looked pretty smart. Through six games, Foster was hanging in there among the top 10 fantasy RBs, and was coming off three straight contests with at least 118 rushing yards. Unfortunately, a back injury ended his season, fulfilling the prophecy of those who were concerned that three years of immense workloads would catch up to him. Now Foster comes with the risk of continued injury, as well as a rebuilding offense. If he's right, he'll finish inside the top three. If he's not, he could crush your fantasy squad. ... Trent Richardson was a consensus top-10 pick last year, and all he did was get traded to the Indianapolis Colts and look like one of the worst RBs in the NFL. He averaged an anemic 2.9 yards per carry, and lost work to Donald Brown, of all people. The good news for T-Rich is that expectations for him could scarcely be lower, and the Colts haven't acquired legitimate options behind him. (Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw are each coming off season-ending surgeries.) The bad news for Richardson is all that bad game film he left in his wake in '13. ... Chris Johnson still has a big name, but he no longer has an unquestioned starting role. The New York Jets will feature "CJ?K" in conjunction with Chris Ivory and perhaps Bilal Powell, which means Johnson is a poor bet to be the TD-maker in Gotham. He still has terrific long speed and durability, but Johnson was 45th out of 47 RBs in average yards after contact last year. I believe he'll still win you the occasional week. But in games where he doesn't make big plays, he won't help your team much. ... What happened to Ray Rice in '13? Good heavens. A top-five choice in all leagues because of his rugged consistency, Rice flopped impossibly hard, averaging 3.1 yards per carry and scoring just four TDs. Yes, he battled a hip injury all year, and the Baltimore Ravens' O-line was bad. But you have to squint pretty hard at Rice's game tape from last year to see a great player. He's still only 27, but he's had big workloads throughout his career, plus he could face a suspension for off-field behavior. ... Steven Jackson's arrival with the Atlanta Falcons looked like a can't-miss proposition, as one of the NFL's true tough guys would at the very least inherit the TD-making role Michael Turner made famous. Unfortunately, Jackson looked old and slow, and the Falcons stunk. At age 31, a bounce-back from Jackson is possible, but there's no reason to reach for Jackson.

Opportunity knocks

With Knowshon Moreno in Miami, Montee Ball has instant star potential as Peyton Manning's caddie. Ball's rookie campaign was a letdown, as blocking and fumbling problems lost him the Denver Broncos' starting gig, but the team seems committed to giving Ball another chance in '14. Moreno scored 13 TDs last season and accounted for 1,586 yards from scrimmage. ... The Cincinnati Bengals finally seem to understand that if Andy Dalton is their QB, they need to rely more heavily on the running game. New coordinator Hue Jackson has a history of getting the best out of his backs, and that means Giovani Bernard has a chance to lead Cincy in backfield touches. He's elusive, with game-breaking quickness and receiving chops, and should have a chance to be an every-week starter even if he doesn't reach an elite TD level. ... Ben Tate looks like the Cleveland Browns' unquestioned starter, probably with rookie QB Johnny Manziel under center and Josh Gordon missing from the lineup indefinitely. Tate is a nice fit for new coordinator Kyle Shanahan's preferred zone-blocking schemes, and if he's healthy, he could lead the NFL in carries. But that's the problem. Tate has missed 24 of a possible 64 games in his career, and has not been on his team's injury report only 13 times. ... I don't trust that Bruce Arians will make Andre Ellington a true feature back, but it's a possibility. Ellington is a devastating open-field runner, but he watched while fading Rashard Mendenhall exceeded 200 touches in '13. We'll probably see Jonathan Dwyer and/or Stepfan Taylor mooch enough carries to be annoying. But there's no question that Ellington is the most talented player of the bunch. ... Rashad Jennings busted out in the second half of '13 and earned himself $3 million guaranteed with the New York Giants, who may need Jennings to carry the mail. David Wilson had neck surgery this winter, and Andre Brown is gone to Houston. Jennings isn't a great raw player, but at 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, he fits the mold of big backs whom Tom Coughlin has made fantasy-relevant in the past. ... The Jacksonville Jaguars gave Toby Gerhart $4.5 million guaranteed and seem set to enter this season with him as their main man. Of course, with this rebuilding franchise, that role isn't necessarily a gold mine. At 230 pounds, Gerhart could easily be someone's goal-line thumper. But with the Jags get in position for many short TDs in '14?

Injury risk

DeMarco Murray is big, fast, can catch and led qualified running backs in yards per carry in '13. But he has missed 11 games out of a possible 32 in his NFL career, and has battled everything from a broken leg to sprained wrists, ankles and knees. Scott Linehan's presence in Big D as the Dallas Cowboys' new offensive coordinator has folks buzzing about the possibility of 700-plus pass attempts for Tony Romo, and a healthy Murray would certainly be a big part of that. But if you consider him as your No. 1 RB, you risk getting burned. ... Reggie Bush cleared up many of his injury concerns with the Miami Dolphins, where he only missed one game in two seasons. But last year with the Detroit Lions, Bush sat out two contests with knee and calf issues, and we all remember his several injury-marred campaigns in New Orleans. At age 29, with more than 1,500 career touches, Bush seems a likely candidate to miss more time in '14. ... Ryan Mathews played the full 16 last year for the first time in his three-season NFL career, and set personal records in most rushing categories. Unfortunately, entering the playoffs, Mathews suffered a high-ankle sprain and was a shell of himself, and that's been his story. This winter the San Diego Chargers realized they can't count on Mathews staying healthy, so they signed Donald Brown to a decent-sized contract to serve as a security blanket. ... C.J. Spiller was a consensus first-round pick in all fantasy leagues last year, but after Week 4 he labored with a high-ankle sprain and couldn't consistently find his traditional burst. The Buffalo Bills traded for Bryce Brown this winter, and also figure to keep Fred Jackson quite busy, knowing that Spiller's four-year pro career has been marked by innumerable bumps and bangs.

Rookie crop

In terms of pure talent, I don't like Bishop Sankey best among the rookie rushers, but the Tennessee Titans do. They selected him in the second round of May's draft, and with only Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster and Jackie Battle on the depth chart, Sankey looks like the heavy favorite to start Week 1. As such, in redraft leagues, Sankey should be the first rookie RB selected. But don't reach for him. He's a terrific athlete, but he needs to prove he can get north-south more frequently, instead of searching east-west for big plays. ... Tre Mason lands behind Zac Stacy on the St. Louis Rams' depth chart, so it's conceivable that there's a receiving-back role available to him right away. But Mason doesn't have much pass-blocking experience, and he fumbled eight times in his final two collegiate seasons. He has potential, but it would probably take a Stacy injury for him to see fantasy value in '14. ... Terrance West was a little-known collegiate player at Towson, but at 225 pounds he ran a 4.54 40 at February's combine, and he possesses rare leg power as a runner. The Browns hope Ben Tate can be "The Man" this year, but Tate's injury history is long and sordid, meaning there could be big-time sleeper potential elsewhere in the Cleveland backfield. ... Ka'Deem Carey was productive in Rich Rodriguez's spread attack at Arizona, but had off-field problems and didn't test well athletically this winter. That explains why he fell to the fourth round in May's draft. But the Chicago Bears have been looking for a legit handcuff for Matt Forte, and now they've got one. Carey is a high-effort RB who busts through first contact and excels in tight quarters. ... Andre Williams landed with the Giants, and if David Wilson can't play because of his neck injury, Williams looks like Rashad Jennings' direct backup. The two big backs share some qualities, and it's possible Williams could get in the short-TD mix in Gotham. ... Devonta Freeman is 5-foot-8 and 206 pounds, which puts him on the borderline to someday be a starting RB. But the Falcons don't need him to start right away. Instead, Freeman can immediately become Steven Jackson's understudy and passing-down complement. He's already a pro-level receiver and pass-blocker. ... Carlos Hyde was many observers' favorite RB talent in the '14 draft, but alas he landed with the 49ers, who already employ Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and, as of this writing, LaMichael James. In dynasty leagues, Hyde deserves to be a first-round rookie pick. In redraft leagues, he's nothing more than a late-round shot in the dark. ... Jerick McKinnon alternated between QB and RB at Georgia Southern, meaning he's probably not ready to pick up blitzes at an NFL level just yet. But with Toby Gerhart gone, the Minnesota Vikings hope McKinnon can immediately assume the understudy role behind Adrian Peterson. By September, he may be AP's handcuff.

Unsettled situations

Entering '13, Stevan Ridley looked like a rock-solid No. 2 RB and touchdown-maker for the New England Patriots. Then he started fumbling. Ridley lost four fumbles and then lost his starting job, crushing his fantasy owners in the process. Shane Vereen needs to prove he can stay healthy, Brandon Bolden needs to prove he's more than just a between-the-tackles plodder, and rookie James White needs to prove he's ready for prime time. The Pats had 12 TD runs from inside an opponent's 5 last year, and lead the NFL with 56 since '10. But will one man emerge as a goal-line force this season? ... Another year, another New Orleans Saints RB platoon. Darren Sproles is gone to Philly, which means Pierre Thomas seems like a great bet to once again threaten the top spot among all receiving backs (making him a potential PPR monster), but who'll carry the rock? Will it be Mark Ingram, he of the perpetually disappointing results? Will it be Thomas, who has rushed for two TDs or fewer in three of the past four years? Or will it be Khiry Robinson, who has 54 career regular-season carries? ... Knowshon Moreno comes off an immense season with the Broncos, but the Dolphins' O-line is a weak spot and Lamar Miller is 23 years old and still has 4.4 speed. No Miami runner finished higher than 40th in fantasy points among RBs last year, but that could improve with new coordinator Bill Lazor on board. ... I make Maurice Jones-Drew the favorite to lead the Oakland Raiders in RB touches, but you have to ask yourself how much that's really worth. The O-line is full of holes, the QB play looks shaky, and MJD himself looked greatly diminished in '13. Darren McFadden and Latavius Murray are also candidates for backfield work.

Sleepers

Sometimes I convince myself I'd rather have Joique Bell than Reggie Bush. That's probably dumb, as Bush is still lightning in space, and as such is likelier to win you weeks. But I think Bell is a better between-the-tackles runner, and he's just as good a pass catcher as The Prez. At the least, Bell looks like a flex in all leagues, and in PPR formats, he might be a No. 2 RB. I give him a chance to equal Bush's total touches from scrimmage. ... I mentioned the annual Saints backfield conundrum above, but in standard formats I think I prefer Khiry Robinson over his older counterparts. (In PPR formats, Pierre Thomas is assuredly a better bet.) Mark Ingram has the bigger name, but Robinson has the bigger body, and in limited action has already shown better instincts and power than the former Heisman winner. It's likeliest than none of these guys really busts out into fantasy stardom. But if someone does, I think it'll be Robinson. ... Two RBs who are currently pure handcuffs find themselves in a rare position: I think they'll be studs if they inherit the big job. Christine Michael had health and disciplinary problems in college and basically was a no-show for his rookie year, but he's the Seattle Seahawks' starter of the future. A big, fast, nasty mauler, Michael could easily bite into Marshawn Lynch's workload as early as '14. And Knile Davis overcame the fumbling woes that plagued him in college to earn a job as Jamaal Charles' understudy last year, and then flashed some big-time skills in December. He, too, will be a fantasy name to be reckoned with sooner rather than later.

Draft strategy

Let's return to this question: Even if top RBs are scarcer than top players at other positions, what if they're less reliable? Doesn't that make drafting the best RBs early too risky?

If every year were like '13, my answer would be yes. If every season saw half the top-echelon RBs fall off a cliff all at once, I agree that it would be too risky to take a running back in the first round. But the fact is that last season was an outlier. In the five seasons prior to '13, a grand total of three RBs flopped as hard as five did last season. (Those five floppers: Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and Trent Richardson.) Here's a year-by-year breakdown:

NOTE: VBD stands for Value Based Drafting

For comparison's sake, let's look at QBs and WRs over the same span:

So are QBs and WRs really safer than RBs? Let's do the math:

I'm not saying you have to take a RB in your first round no matter what. If you're picking, say, seventh or eighth, and you have a bad feeling about the RB options, I understand taking the perceived safety of Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning or maybe even Jimmy Graham. I'm not saying I'd do it, but I get it. Before then, however, it's RB all the way.

In subsequent rounds, I'm less dogmatic. As your draft proceeds, it's more about players than it is positions; you should be a value-seeking missile, searching for market inefficiencies. However, if you come to a choice between players at different positions about whom you're completely agnostic? I'd always lean toward RB depth.

Auction strategy

Each fantasy auction is its own animal, so it's tough to give absolutes about how much you should spend on running backs. In a league that gives you $200 to spend on your players, a decent rule of thumb is that in an average draft, if you budget about $100 for rushers, even in today's wacky RB world, you'll probably be OK. Your starters will eat up the vast majority of that budget, clearly, while your reserves and sleepers will come on the relative cheap. Now, this "median" budget doesn't account for the variations in strategy that occur in every fantasy football auction. If you've decided you're going to pay for two elite rushers, for instance, you're probably going to have to spend upwards of 75 percent of your money on two players (i.e., the "Studs and Duds" strategy). However, no matter what, make sure you've got a nice long list of potential $1 or $2 rushers for your auction's end game. As in snake drafts, I like to wind up with a bunch of lottery-ticket running backs in an auction, because rushers who come out of left field to be significant contributors are sweet.